What Increases Project Risk?

Agile or Waterfall, Ignore Project Risk at your Peril

This question got Project Managers (not agile PMs by the way) rather fired-up recently. Their answers help reveal the extent of the underlying problem.

Of 105 replies, the collective opinion on factors that increase project risk was:

  • Anything that’s new or unknown: stakeholders, team, methodology, tools
  • Changing scope, unrealistic expectations
  • Micro management or mismanagement
  • Inadequate resources or insufficiently skilled people
  • Inadequately tested assumptions
  • Poor communication and/or documentation
  • Compromised or changing vision, goals or strategy
  • Lack of visibility
  • Delays in decision-making
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities


Project Managers Blame Management

Although project managers are managers, every cause cited above, with the exception of the first, is either directly controlled by managers, or indirectly via their choice of project management method. That suggests the project management community (whom we may believe are experts in running projects) think poor management practice leads to project failure. Ouch!

It’s not all the fault of managers

Strangely, I’ve yet to meet anyone on a project team that didn’t want the project to succeed. Of course people push-back at times and there are times when morale and confidence are so low that failure feels unavoidable.

Anyone who’s been running projects for any time will be well aware of these phenomena and will coach the team through to the next successful milestone. They are just more risks (for the risk register) and underline the need for experienced project leadership.

As is the need for Project Managers to recognise where management is increasing project risk and to actively support them.

In agile Scrum, the Scrum Master, a servant/leader role, supports the Product Owner. Given the Scrum Master is responsible for the success of Scrum, and the Product Owner responsible for the success of the Product, it is easy to see the need for collaboration between these two roles.

Whilst there’s no direct correlation between Scrum’s roles and those of a traditionally-managed project and I am not implying any, my point is that Scrum’s clearly-defined and simple roles and responsibilities makes project management easier and helps to reduce risk.

Decreasing Project Risk

A better question might have asked what PMs do to reduce project risk, and two respondents had the clairvoyance to provide those answers (surely a desirable characteristic for a project manager).

I go out of my way to encourage an environment where no question/comment/idea is a bad unless it remains unspoken. This has certainly saved me a lot of “risks” that could have come back to bite me.

Jackie O, Program manager at CVS Health

The biggest risk I face is poor problem analysis – what problem is being addressed by the project & why is it important? I cannot tell you how many times I find that the sponsor is addressing a symptom & not the underlying cause.

Martin G., Experimentation Integrator at HQ NATO SACT

On a Lighter Note for Project Risk

There were a few ‘crackers’ responses too, such as “People are the biggest risk. Projects are redundant” and “Risks are positive because they can be recorded in a risk register” as well as the rather revealing ‘Wrong people staffing a project, following a contract awarded to the wrong bid’.



The original question appeared on The Project Manager’s Group on LinkedIn

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